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Africa’s largest public-opinion survey is under threat, but here’s what you can do about it

- September 9, 2016
An Afrobarometer interviewer conducts a survey in Benin in 2015. (Afrobarometer)

The following is a guest post by directors of Afrobarometer, a pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. It begins a weekly series we will feature at TMC highlighting research findings from Afrobarometer as they relate to current events.

To Africa specialists, the value of public-opinion survey research is clear enough, as recent analyses of Afrobarometer findings on Nigeria’s elections, presidential term limits, infrastructure and the escape from poverty, and (in)tolerance of homosexuality show.

But how does the data we collect benefit the lives of the people we interview? Tens of thousands of respondents give us an hour or more of their time to answer a long list of questions. Does survey research have any impact on their lives? We think it does, and we need your help to sustain it.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/30/nigerians-go-to-the-polls-in-a-tight-race-amid-concerns-about-election-safety-credibility/”]Nigerians go to the polls in a tight race amid concerns about election safety, credibility[/interstitial_link]

At Afrobarometer, one of our core goals is to give voice to ordinary Africans — to “let the people have a say” — in the political processes and policy debates simmering across the continent. But making those voices heard requires breaking down barriers. Polls are part of daily — or these days, hourly — existence in the West, but opinion surveys are still a relative newcomer on the African political scene. And African political elites have been slow to embrace them, often because survey results challenge leaders’ claims to “speak for their people.”

Grappling with the data revolution

But evidence-based policymaking is a priority for Africa as well. Increasing numbers of people in the media, civil society and even government now champion survey data and polling as a way to bolster public voice in policy and politics — a critical pillar of democracy on the continent.

Here’s an example. In one of the most authoritarian countries we’ve surveyed, briefing the government on our findings looked like a dicey assignment — until the secretary of the cabinet revealed himself to be a true believer in data and evidence. He laid out strict ground rules for the assembled civil service heads: They were welcome to critique the methodology, but if they could not find fault with the methods, then they must accept the findings. After a lively debate that eventually confirmed the validity of the data, the group then grappled with abysmal popular ratings of government performance in improving living conditions for the poor, ensuring that people had enough to eat and creating jobs.

In all probability, this was the first time that these government officials ever had to answer to citizen feedback on the government’s performance. For some of these officials, the news they received was distinctly uncomfortable.

Citizens’ voices fuel debate and (sometimes) action

Another Afrobarometer finding touched a nerve in high places: Most Africans support limiting their presidents to two terms. In Burkina Faso, the finding that 65 percent of citizens favor term limits was widely circulated. When the national effort to prevent his third term succeeded in October 2014, then-President Compaoré left the country.

In Burundi, the debate was less conclusive. Although Afrobarometer reported in January 2015 that 62 percent of Burundians support term limits, President Nkurunziza remains in office, while our national partner who conducted the survey had to join many others who fled the country. Even so, it’s important that these debates took place at all. Virtually everyone in Burundi now knows that in extending his tenure in office, the president was overruling the wishes of his people. This public knowledge may yet prove a powerful weapon in the struggle for democracy and better governance in Burundi.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/05/03/most-togolese-support-term-limits-but-they-just-re-elected-their-president-for-a-third-term/”]Most Togolese support term limits. But they just re-elected their president for a third term.[/interstitial_link]

Contrast that with Rwanda, where freedom of speech is so constrained that Afrobarometer cannot run a valid survey, leaving us without data to counter the government’s claim that national consultations revealed a mere 10(!) very brave souls who opposed the extension of President Kagame’s term in office.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/16/are-efforts-to-limit-presidential-power-in-africa-working/”]Are efforts to limit presidential power in Africa working?[/interstitial_link]

Opinion polls promote good governance

People’s voices can be a potent agent of change, as our survey results on corruption in Ghana showed. Like citizens in many countries, Ghanaians regard the police as their most corrupt institution (89 percent said “some,” “most,” or “all” were corrupt). The legal/judicial system fared almost as poorly (85 percent). The public outcry, amplified on the nation’s many radio and TV chat shows, led to some important changes. Ghana’s chief justice introduced reforms to clean up the judiciary, citing the public opinion findings as an impetus.

By contrast, Ghana’s police administration first tried to discredit the findings, then publicly blamed the Ghanaian people for corrupting the police. But while the police administration has yet to seriously address the problem of corruption, it is still a noteworthy day when national leaders have to respond publicly to citizens’ dismal views of their performance.

This ability to expose leaders to popular assessments of their performance represents a sea change in Africa, a stark departure from the past, when “public voice” was often limited to voting in elections that offered little choice and pre-ordained outcomes. While many countries now hold remarkably competitive elections, the need for public input goes well beyond marking a ballot every four or five years.

If democracy depends on the millions of daily interactions between a state and its citizens, then citizens’ voices must be heard every day, and no political or policy debate can be considered complete without them.

Afrobarometer’s surveys are in danger

Unfortunately, resources to promote democracy and good governance in Africa are drying up as other priorities have taken center stage. As a result, a continuation of survey research projects like Afrobarometer is under threat.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/27/this-is-what-citizens-say-is-needed-to-end-malis-insecurity/”]This is what citizens say is needed to end Mali’s insecurity[/interstitial_link]

Afrobarometer currently faces the prospect of either seriously scaling back its work (from 36 African countries to just 10 or 12) or shuttering entirely. As we’ve spread the word about these challenges, we’ve been grateful for the rallying of support from those in academia and international policy and development circles who are frequent users of our data.

You can add your voice by taking a brief survey about Afrobarometer’s impact. Better still, tell elected representatives, funding agencies, foundations and your networks why survey research is important and what uses and impacts of Afrobarometer data you have seen. Every voice helps. Afrobarometer is also seeking donations, through a “Donate” link at the top of our homepage.

Together, perhaps we can ensure that millions of ordinary African citizens don’t lose an important opportunity to have their voices heard, and with it their ability to push for good policies and better governance.

Carolyn Logan is deputy director of Afrobarometer and associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

E. Gyimah-Boadi is co-founder and executive director of Afrobarometer and a retired professor of politics at the University of Ghana, Legon. He is also executive director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development.